Allah and the Occident How Islam Came to Germany

The history of Islam in Germany goes back as far as the 8th century. From the reign of Charlemagne, to Goethe's literature, to the Turkish guest workers who arrived in the 1950s and 60s and made a home here, the Muslim religion has been a part of German culture for hundreds of years.

By Ursula Spuler-Stegemann

The sun sets behind the Yanidze complex in Dresden, the mosque-inspired former home to a tobacco factory.

The sun sets behind the Yanidze complex in Dresden, the mosque-inspired former home to a tobacco factory.

The history of Islam in Germany is believed to date back to the Caliph Harun al-Rashid. In the fabled tales of "1001 Nights," al-Rashid is said to have wandered the streets of Baghdad at night dressed as a merchant in order to learn about the needs of his subjects. Various sources relate that Charlemagne established diplomatic relations with this Abbasid ruler in the year 797 or 801. Both sides reportedly guaranteed freedom of belief for members of the other religion in their respective empires. It is in any case an established historic fact that the elephant Abul Abbas died in 810. This magnificent animal had been sent by the caliph to Charlemagne in Aachen as a token of his friendship.

The Spread of Islam in Europe

At the time of Charlemagne, most of the Iberian Peninsula was already under the control of the Moors, who ruled over this part of Europe for nearly 800 years until the final stage of the reconquista -- the Christian reconquest of Spain and Portugal -- in the year 1492. Additional military advances by the Muslims in Europe were stopped -- exactly one century after the death of the Prophet Muhammad -- in 732 at Tours and Poitiers and in 759 in Narbonne and Nimes in France.

Between the 8th and 10th centuries, Arab Muslims carried out raids on Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and even Rome. Islamic forces advanced from the south and the west via Piemont and Burgundy into the Rhone Valley. They occupied alpine passes and parts of Switzerland, where they remained from 952 to 960.

The last great onslaught came from the east. When the Ottoman Turks captured the Byzantine capital Constantinople (today Istanbul) in 1453, it spelled the end of the Eastern Roman Empire and this final bastion of Christianity in Asia Minor. Afterwards, the Ottomans expanded their realm of influence and made incursions in 1529 and 1683 throughout the Balkans and as far as the gates of Vienna, and Islamized Bosnia and Albania.

Cultural Influences

While successive Islamic military campaigns rolled over large parts of Europe for over a millennium, the areas that make up modern Germany remained largely unaffected. There were, however, cultural influences from occupied Spain. The synergy of Islamic, Jewish and Christian learning spread the seeds of knowledge and shaped Western civilization. Treasures of antiquity, such as the works of Galen, Euclid and Plato would have been lost forever were it not for Arab translations, most of which were rendered into Latin under the orders of Archbishop Raimundo in the 12th century. Above all the commented translation of the writings of Aristotle by Ibn Rushd -- better known in the Latin West as Averroes -- enjoyed considerable influence on medieval scholasticism.

In order to better understand the "Koran of the Turks," church reformer Martin Luther called for the printing of a complete Latin translation of the Islamic holy book in the Swiss city of Basel. In his treatise, "On the War Against the Turk," he didn't mince his words when summarizing his opinion that "the Muslim is possessed by the lying spirit" and "where the lying spirit holds sway, the murdering spirit is present as well." Although he granted that the Turk had a number of admirable characteristics, he opined that -- just like the Pope -- he was a "servant of the devil." For many years, Europeans widely believed that Islam was a Christian sect, the Koran was a Turkish bible and Muhammad was an epileptic, a swindler and a charlatan.

Acceptance of Islam

Up until the 17th century, the "Turkish threat" and fear of the Turkish wars overshadowed interactions with Muslims. It was not until 1701 that the situation began to change. That was the year when Sultan Mustafa II conveyed his congratulations to King Frederick I of Prussia on his coronation. This led to more or less open diplomatic relations between the two powers. When the Duke of Kurland presented King Frederick William I with 20 Muslim Tatars as prisoners of war, the German monarch saw to it that they received a prayer room, but ordered by decree that they hold their day of rest not on Friday, as dictated by Islam, but on Sunday.

During his rule between 1712 and 1786, Frederick II ("The Great") also showed tolerance towards other religions. In reference to the state and the civil rights of Catholics, he said: "All religions must be tolerated and the crown must ensure that none is detrimental to the other, for each must be allowed to worship in their own way." Furthermore, he said: "All religions are equal and good when the people who profess them are honest people; and should Turks and heathens come to populate the land, then we shall endeavor to build mosques and churches for them."

In order to create a counterweight to the Habsburg crown, Frederick II sought and found a loyal ally in the Ottoman Empire. Official diplomatic relations to the Sublime Porte -- the court of the sultan -- were established, and on Nov. 9, 1763 the first Turkish envoy, Ahmed Resmi Efendi, arrived in Berlin with an exotically dressed entourage of 73 aides who were greeted by the cheering inhabitants of the city. Deeply impressed and evidently slightly confused by this emphatic reception, the diplomat wrote to Sultan Mustafa III that "the people of Berlin recognize the Prophet Muhammad and are not afraid to admit that they are prepared to embrace Islam."

When a successor to the envoy died in 1798, Frederick William III, who ruled from 1770 to 1840, ordered that he should be buried in accordance with Islamic rites. This required a royal bequest, and thus the first Turkish-owned property on German soil was the Islamic cemetery in Berlin.

The Exotic Orient Comes to Germany

The history of Islam in Germany and German views of the religion were strongly influenced by the Enlightenment. One of the key figures of the day was Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, who lived from 1729 to 1781 and was the most important German poet of the period. He argued for the right to freedom of thought, even in matters of religion, and for tolerance of other religions. His famous "ring parable" leaves open the question of whether Christianity, Judaism or Islam possesses the sole truth.

The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the leading advocate of German Idealism, was also fascinated by Islam and characterized it as the "religion of grandeur."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had outstanding knowledge of Islam, which he brought into play in his "East-West Divan," a collection of works published in 1819 that emulate Sufi and other Muslim poetry. Thanks to his high regard for their religion, many Muslims would just as soon adopt the great German poet as one of their own.

Muslim life was often viewed with the tunnel vision of prisoners of war and travelers. Tales of splendid royal palaces, extravagant harems and Turkish baths ignited male fantasies, including those of French painters Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Ingres and their German colleague, the much acclaimed Adolf Seel. The rhythms and instruments of the military musicians of the Janissary corps, which always rode ahead of the Ottoman army and "made the earth tremble," had a profound influence on European music, and inspired Christoph Willibald Gluck to compose his Turkish operas -- "The Pilgrims to Mecca" in 1764 and "Iphigenia in Tauris" in 1779. Viennese classical composers were also fond of music "alla turca:" Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart included these exotic sounds in the overture to his comic opera "The Abduction from the Seraglio" -- about the escape from a Turkish harem -- and the "Turkish March" in Piano Sonata No. 11. Joseph Haydn and later Ludwig van Beethoven also succumbed to the irresistible charm of oriental music.

Even the armchair travel accounts of famed German author Karl May (who lived from 1842 to 1912) -- with his tales of the Ottoman Empire starring the protagonist Kara Ben Nemsi (i.e., Karl, son of Germany) -- have lost none of their appeal over the years, and probably prompted many a young German to pursue Oriental studies. Secular buildings constructed in a mosque style, like the "Red Mosque," which was built between 1780 and 1785 and set in the midst of the "Turkish Garden" at Schwetzingen Palace near Heidelberg in southern Germany, and the Yenidze tobacco factory, which was built in the early 20th century in Dresden and now serves as the venue for the "1001 Nights Festival," must seem like mockery to devout Muslims. The builders certainly never intended to offend anyone; they were merely fascinated by the foreign and exotic elements and the architectural beauty.

In 1889, just one year after his ascendance to the throne, Kaiser William II traveled to Istanbul and nine years later journeyed to Jerusalem and Damascus, both of which belonged to the Ottoman Empire. In Damascus, the Kaiser visited the grave of Saladin, who recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders in 1187. In his speech delivered on Nov. 6, 1898, the German monarch declared: "May his majesty the Sultan and the 300 million Muslims who live scattered across the globe (…) rest assured that the German Kaiser will be their friend at all times." Thereafter, the local religious leader intoned "in the name of the world of Islam, may Allah's blessing be on the Kaiser, the German Empire, and all Germans." Relations could not have been better.

During World War I the Germans and the Turks were allies. The multinational Muslim prisoners of war of the Entente were held in two camps in Zossen and in Wünsdorf near Berlin, where they were provided with a beautiful mosque in 1915, which was demolished, however, after the camp was closed.


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